Mr. Maturen Goes to WashingtonBy Susannah Black for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Many of us have, I imagine, indulged over the course of this summer in a certain amount of GOP doomer porn– reading (and writing, and talking about) thinkpieces that diagnose (or predict, or call for) the end of the Republican party’s stranglehold on the votes of social conservatives and traditional Christians. The flavor of a lot of this conversation reminds me a bit of the post-collapse fiction of James Howard Kunstler or (in a different vein) James Rawles: the discussions have been both warnings and instances of delighted accelerationist wish-fulfillment storytelling. In terms of the American political scene, Donald Trump has taken on the role of the massive solar flare that wipes out all our grid-based electricity and telecommunications and gives us the chance to start fresh, relying only on our car batteries, our native wits, and our trusty Bowie knives: he is, for the GOP, peak oil, a nuclear strike, and a devastating zombie plague, all in one. If he didn’t exist, perhaps we would have had to invent him.
Now that we have him, we also have, strangely, breathing space: we can use the impossible situation to step back and ask whether the degenerated version of the modern Republican fusion of officially-libertarian and actually-corporatist economics; neoconservative foreign policy, and officially-conservative pelvic politics (contemptuously betrayed at every turn by its anti-family economic policies) makes sense.
For many of us, the answer that comes thundering back from the hills to which we pour out our hearts is “No. That was just one of those things. Are you ready for what’s next?”
What’s next may be hinted at by a 51 year old devout Catholic, businessman, and semi-professional magician named Mike Maturen, who recently accepted the presidential nomination of the American Solidarity Party, the only active Christian Democratic party in the nation.
A Christian Democratic party in America? Well, why not? In any other election season such a thing might seem outlandish, but our national outlandishness scale has been fairly significantly shifted over the past several months. The American Solidarity Party has risen to a certain niche prominence in the past few weeks, and its platform makes, in light of the mutation of the current party system, a certain amount of sense.
It is– make no mistake– a tiny party. Not every state has a chapter, though energetic organizing and recent spikes in party membership are going a long way to address this. It will not be on the ballot in most states. And while the party’s strategy includes a long-term commitment to supporting ASP candidates at the local level, for the moment, their presidential and vice presidential candidates are the only ones running.
Still, the platform, and their policy recommendations, are not to be shrugged off.
The short way to describe the ASP is that it leans right on social issues, and left on economic ones: your basic pro-life anti-capitalism. But that’s to simplify things to the point of distortion. The platform is based on a Francis-era version of Catholic social teaching. It emphasizes what’s been called the seamless-garment approach to the life issues (i.e. it is against abortion and euthanasia, and also rejects the death penalty.) It’s committed to what have come to be the twin pillars of CST, subsidiarity and solidarity: subsidiarity, the principle that decisions should be made at the most local and least centralized level that is appropriate; solidarity, the affirmation that we are our brothers’ keepers, that we have a loving duty to see to each other’s well-being, and not to look only to our own interests. The economic philosophy of distributism is another core element of ASP’s vision: the idea that widespread ownership of property, and especially of productive property, is preferable to either a big-box store version of globalized capitalism, or a state socialism that would deny citizens’ property rights and stifle legitimate economic freedom.
It is a mistake to see ASP’s platform as simply modern leftism without the left’s acceptance of abortion and its affirmation of same-sex marriage and of the sexual revolution in general. The bias towards the local is distinctive; while ASP calls for universal public health insurance, Maturen emphasized that this would be controlled by the states, and ASP rejects such national programs as the Common Core. Explains Maturen, “subsidiarity says that–if possible–things that can be done at the [local] levels should be. However, there are some areas, like the military, for instance, are best handled at the Federal level, while schools on the other hand, are best controlled at the local level.” The platform emphasizes the idea that “the responsibility for education of children resides primarily in the family,” supporting the right of parents to homeschool, as well as supporting public funding for both public and private education.
It is not a philosophically pacifist party, either, though the platform calls for a “less aggressive” foreign policy; Maturen describes himself as committed to a blend of the Augustinian and Thomist just-war traditions. And, in language that would be very out of place on the American left, Maturen rejects the concept of a secularized public sphere. The constitution, Maturen points out, does not call for the “separation of church and state…Rather it calls for the government to not abridge the free practice of religion. That doesn’t just mean freedom to worship…it means the freedom to live our religion. That means not forcing pro-life doctors to prescribe birth control or to perform abortions. Likewise it also mean not forcing a secularist doctor to pray before surgery. Secularism, divorced from its religious counterpart, will lead to selfish individualism. Religion divorced from its secularist counterpart will lead to a dangerous theocracy…and religious wars.”
ASP is not a Christian party per se. Catholic social teaching, says Maturen, is based on a nonsectarian commitment to justice and compassion. “These are attributes that …Christians, folks of other religions, and folks with no religion can all aspire to,” he says. It’s something of a natural law argument, though Maturen prefers to think of it as simply common sense– which, along with “Common Good” and “Common Ground” is one of ASP’s catchphrases and principles.
Christian Democratic parties began popping up in Europe in the late 19th century after Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclicals Immortale Dei and Rerum Novarum (1885 and 1891 respectively.) In rejecting both unrestricted capitalism and socialism, while affirming aspects of political democracy, the Pope opened up the possibility for an approach to the modern economy and state that was both distinctly Catholic and yet not committed to a return to an imagined (or real) pre-French Revolutionary ancien regime. But the Christian Democratic movement was not exclusively a Catholic phenomenon – neo-Calvinists such as Abraham Kuyper promoted Reformed versions of such parties as well. And as with Catholic social teaching itself, different eras and different leaders have given rise to Christian Democratic parties with different emphases.
The American Solidarity Party is no European changeling. In its platform and rhetoric one can hear echoes of 19th and 20th century American populism– the Grange movement, for example; with its commitment to family farms; the career of William Jennings Bryan, with his theological and social conservatism wedded to a social-gospel inspired activism that included a deep suspicion of big business. And the ASP candidate, Mike Maturen, has the earnestness and the folksiness of Jimmy Stewart in, well, many of his roles. He speaks with a non-bombastic patriotism of the greatness of America, which could be yet better; of the decency of the American people.
Maturen is convinced that the platform will appeal to those on both sides of the American political spectrum: that it transcends the left-right divide. In a sense this is true, but in another way it seems designed to appeal primarily to those social conservatives (primarily Christians) who find themselves for the first time unable to vote for the Republican candidate.
Trump’s flamboyant embrace of many of the social pathologies (or, well, let’s say sins; we are among friends here) that conservative Christians have been railing against (the divorces, the strip club, and so on) and the fearsome prospect of his finger on the nuclear button have done what decades of American Enterprise Institute-style market fundamentalism failed to do. They have (perhaps, at least in non-swing states) pried Christians away from their thralldom to the GOP. And the ASP, just in time, is offering some kind of alternative.
Maturen is not deluded about his actual electoral chances. But as with (for example) William Buckley’s own candidacy for mayor of New York City, victory is not the point. The point is to educate, to offer an alternative vision. “We have,” said Maturen in his acceptance speech, “much work ahead of us. Our ideas are foreign to the vast majority of the American population… We must work to make this nation aware that there are alternatives to the status quo… It’s time for America to be introduced to the ideas of Christian Democracy.”
Education is one leg of a tripartite strategy that Maturen outlines. The second leg is movement-building: the presidential bid is designed to kick off an attempt to grow the party as a movement, and to build state and local parties which may have a chance of running successful candidates in future elections.
The third leg is to work “to change the minds and hearts of our current elected leaders, introducing legislation that furthers our ideas,” as Maturen puts it. In an interview, he elaborated on this aspect of the strategy: “Most elected officials currently holding office,” he said,
would find some point of commonality with parts of our platform. My idea is to find those commonalities and work with each legislator on pieces of legislation that would forward those things that we agree on. In other words, instead of trying to get them to buy into the totality of the party, we get them to work with us on those areas we have in common. … I personally don’t care who gets the credit for a particular piece of legislation…I care about moving the country closer to the distributist and subsidiarist ideals.
It’s not a short-term strategy. Maturen is committed to changing the political culture of the nation, and that will take a long time. But, he claimed in his acceptance speech, “working from the inside and the outside can produce real change.”
It might be baby steps, but we must crawl before we walk, and walk before we run… We will end up with a few skinned knees and bumps on the head, largely from banging our head against the wall, but these wounds will heal and we will carry on. When we’re knocked down— and we will be— we will pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and keep moving forward..It will be my privilege to help educate our citizens on what we believe, to grow our party, and to change the face of American politics. I urge you to roll up your sleeves, and…get to work. … Our success will be a long and difficult process. But no time is more right than right now.
It’s a long shot, and this election season is just the beginning. But it may be that it’s the beginning of something real.
Susannah Black is an independent writer living in Queens, and editor at Solidarity Hall. She will also be a presenter at this year’s FPR Meeting at Notre Dame.